It was one of my favourite times of the day - breastfeeding my baby girl, her warm body snuggled into mine and her tiny hand curled a round my finger. As Elzette gazed up at me, her blue eyes growing sleepy, it was a moment I wanted to hold onto forever.
I’d breastfed my son, Jared, three, as well and it had been just as precious. But when Elzette was a few months old, she began to refuse milk from my right breast.
‘That’s better bubba,’ I soothed, as she latched onto my left breast happily.
I assumed it was more comfortable for her that way, and our paediatrician said babies often have a preference, so I didn’t think much of it. Then in January this year, when Elzette was 14 months, I was lying on my bed feeding her.
Lifting my arm behind my head, I suddenly felt a hard lump protruding from my right breast.
I reasoned that it was probably a blocked milk duct and that’s why Elzette hadn’t been able to feed. So I decided to go to the doctor, who referred me for a mammogram and a scan. Then I had a biopsy.
I was so sure it wouldn’t be anything sinister, my husband Brad, 41, took the kids while I went to get the results alone.
Nothing could’ve prepared me for the awful news.
‘I’m afraid you have high grade ductal carcinoma in situ,’ the oncologist said.
It’s a non-invasive breast cancer contained in the milk ducts. Left untreated, it can spread and turn into invasive cancer.
‘No, no, no,’ I said, breaking down. ‘I have to be here for my children.’
The oncologist explained I could have a lumpectomy and radiation therapy, but there was a risk it might not get all the cancerous cells. Or I could opt for a full mastectomy.
‘I just want it gone,’ I said, choosing the mastectomy.
During the journey home, I cried all my tears, then I dried my eyes.
‘The action plan is to keep things as normal and happy for the kids as possible,’ I said to Brad.
I told my parents, Henriette and Dirk, the following day.
‘You don’t go into battle planning to lose,’ Dad said, pulling me into a hug. ‘We’ve got this.’
The surgery was scheduled for five weeks’ time.
‘We should have a wine before your op,’ my friend Vicki said. ‘It can be a ‘bye-bye booby’ party!’
So I invited 40 female friends and family, and on the night we laughed and celebrated life.
‘Everyone here has helped make me the positive person I am today,’ I said to the room. ‘Thank you for your love and support.’
Then I turned up the music and we all danced to Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off. Back home, I explained to the kids what was happening as best I could.
‘Mummy’s got a sick booby, but doctors are going to take it away to make me better,’ I said.
On February 24 this year, my right breast and four lymph nodes were removed and sent away for testing to see if the cancer had spread. A week later, I peeled back the dressings and looked at my new reflection. The pink scar ran right across the middle of my chest to my underarm.
Oh well, I sighed. We do what we have to do. The scar was a sign of survival.
There were dark days too.
‘Don’t look at me,’ I’d tell Brad, feeling self-conscious.
But he was so supportive and affectionate, over time I grew more comfortable. When I went back to the oncologist in March, Mum came with me. She’d been my rock throughout.
Amazingly, the disease hadn’t spread – I was cancer free. I don’t need further treatment, but I’ll still have check-ups every six months and annual mammograms. If I hadn’t been breastfeeding Elzette, it could’ve gone unnoticed for months. I have no doubt my gorgeous girl saved my life.
‘She’s my little angel,’ I tell everyone now.
Before this, I never examined myself. Now, I urge everyone to check themselves and get to know their bodies. If there’s a change, go to your doctor. Next year I’ll have a breast reconstruction and I’ve already decided to hold a ‘hello booby’ party. This one will be a fundraiser.
I’ve been overwhelmed by the support from everyone. I went into battle with an army of love and I came out victorious.
How do bubs know?
According to medical experts, cancerous cells can change the taste of breast milk, making it bitter or sour. While little research has been done, it’s thought babies are able to detect this.
This story originally appeared in that's life! Issue 28, July 13, 2017.